In a roleplaying game, we get to choose the kind of character we want to be, like a fighter, a mage, or a bard. We decide our character’s defining traits. And we get to work with other players to decide on the makeup of our party–characters who are good at lockpicking, healing, stealth, combat. We make these choices based on a certain strategy. Is workplace organizing much different? Organizing campaigns have characters, each with their own personality traits, and each person plays a role (or multiple roles). But inexperienced organizers don’t take these traits into consideration when recruiting workers to the union. This guide is to help newer organizers navigate the personalities they may come across. Like in Dungeons & Dragons, we should think about how a party functions, works together, comes into conflict, and pushes the effort forward. You should be thinking about your membership strategy. Before beginning a union campaign, we should ask, What is our plan? First, we must understand the workplace: who works there, how can we get in contact with them, what are their relationships with each other. Then we use this info to recruit social leaders, the most effective and important parts in pushing the organizing effort forward. The following “character classes” are the kinds of people who you will have to recruit, along with some notes on the strategic considerations you’ll need to make before bringing them onboard.
Character Class: Superhero
Strengths: Motivation, endless energy, commitment, usually well-respected by coworkers
Weaknesses: Prone to burnout, creates over-reliance, hoards tasks, may be intimidating
Because the Superhero is hardworking and usually well-liked, you need to recruit them. They are probably a social leader in the shop and others will follow them. These social leaders are most likely to have effective encounters with many different workers. They take the initiative and bring people along with them. If you recruit a Superhero (or if you are one yourself) then you know how effective they can be at single-handedly pushing a campaign forward. But the Superhero tries to do everything themselves: they become the chokepoint for all organizing activity, they accidentally or consciously hoard information and decision-making power, they are likely to burn out, and they leave the campaign vulnerable if they quit or get fired. They take all the work for themselves and rarely build up other workers and spread tasks and development around.
Character Class: Martyr
Strengths: Willingness to take action, commitment, works hard
Weaknesses: Big ego, sometimes disliked by coworkers, works hard for their own benefit
Union campaigns–real union campaigns that build solidarity between workers and a rebellious spirit to take on the bosses–take a long time. We want to build stable and sustainable campaigns. They take patience and strategic outlook. The Martyr can be a great organizer because they put the campaign ahead of themselves. They desperately want to succeed. But the Martyr also wants to take the shortcut of relying on token actions to push the campaign forward. If things aren’t going their way, they perform some kind of self-sacrifice to try and save things. They take risky or petulant actions with little chance of success, sometimes to guilt other workers into helping or to boost their own ego. We know that winning isn’t built on action. It’s built on solidarity. Trust, mutual support, caring, and collective decision-making win campaigns, and it takes a long time to build those things. Be aware of the Martyr’s instinct to act impulsively.
Character Class: Lifelong Leftist
Strengths: Familiar with history and theory, believes in class struggle, probably hates the big boss
Weaknesses: Finds ways to justify dislike of unions, unwillingness to take action, talks a good game, maybe unpopular with coworkers
The Lifelong Leftist is another character who has the capability to be a great organizer if they can be convinced to take on the work. They also want to win, they want to see capitalism destroyed. But Lifelong Leftists are why we can’t just sign up people on the Left and win. So many self-proclaimed revolutionaries do not want to take action for one reason or another (be they ideological, like many Leftist parties opposed to unionism, or be they self-interested, like not wanting to risk their job). Their identity might revolve around “hating capitalism” and griping. They might be friends with the boss or want power for themselves, even if they do talk a good game. They may be unpopular because of their cynicism, and they may attract unwanted attention for their outspokenness. But they may also be a useful supporter if they see the union gaining traction and if they can be sufficiently agitated to do something.
Character Class: Big Talker
Strengths: People listen when they speak and generally believe what they say
Weaknesses: People listen when they speak and generally believe what they say
Often funny, loud, friendly, and well-liked, the Big Talker can be a great person for the Organizing Committee. The downside is they might accidentally tip off the bosses or hostile coworkers. People trust the Big Talker to be honest and forthright, and so they often have the (sometimes grudging) respect of their coworkers. Early on, clue the Big Talker in to strategy so they know to help you stay under the radar.
Character Class: Rebel
Strengths: Cool, is generally a social leader, and is rebellious
Weaknesses: Hard to recruit, may be unaccountable to the group, may shirk tasks
The Rebel is cool. They show an open disdain for the bosses and for rules. They are rebellious and they know the system is bullshit. Some people are drawn to the Rebel because they are charismatic or manifest what people wish they had the guts to do. But just as they won’t follow all the boss’ rules, the Rebel may show disdain for the union’s structure, leadership, policies, and procedures. They hate boring meetings. If you hold a vote they disagree with, you can’t count on them to be accountable. With the right agitation towards the bosses, the Rebel will be an invaluable part of the Organizing Committee.
Character Class: Sage
Strengths: Institutional knowledge, respect, large social network
Weaknesses: Institutional inertia, conservative
The Sage has worked there a long time. They know everybody, they know the history, and everybody knows them. They’ve been through years or decades of crap. People go to them for advice, and if they think the union is a good idea a lot of other people will believe it too. But they may also be close to retirement, or dependent on healthcare, or afraid of losing what they have. They probably have kids to take care of. They have a lot to lose. They may not want a big change because they’re somewhat comfortable and have a lot of seniority. This causes them to be more conservative and much less rebellious, and they may not want to participate in a union that is actively confronting the bosses.
Character Class: Apprentice
Strengths: Knowledgeable, friendly, administrative tasks, wants to be helpful
Weaknesses: Not very outgoing, may have trouble making social connections
The Apprentice will become a Sage over time. They are great at administrative tasks and other “boring” things. They work hard and they take pride in their work, so they should be recruited to work for the union. But they may have trouble with the social aspect of recruiting new members. Their skills can be developed easily because they like to learn, but they may also be shy and lack confidence. They are probably not a social leader.
Character Class: Careerist
Strengths: Wants to have a good job, works hard and is respected
Weaknesses: Social climber may sacrifice the campaign for their own advancement, overly cautious due to risks of organizing and getting fired, friendly to bosses
The Careerist can be extremely helpful with the right agitation/education. They want to have a good job and they want to turn their current job into a lifelong career. A union could really help them achieve those things. But they are probably friendly with bosses, and they want to advance up the chain of command. They may see the union as a threat to their career.
Character Class: Warrior
Strengths: Willingness to take action, commitment, motivation, energy
Weaknesses: Lacks strategic outlook, may take reckless actions, may be unaccountable to the group
The Warrior wants to fight, and they want to fight now. They are a great person to coordinate direct actions. They may already be extremely agitated, which can cause them to make mistakes. A Warrior might act alone or too quickly, and they might make snap decisions without group input. The committee should balance their willingness to fight with a request for them to be patient and pick their battles strategically.
Character Class: Zealous Rookie
Strengths: Willingness to take action, motivation and possible zealotry
Weaknesses: Inexperience working with others, headstrong and stubborn, can act like a know-it-all
The 20-something Zealous Rookie will put in the work to grow the union. They have boundless energy and motivation because their identity is based on activism. They are probably “woke” and ready to fight. The organizer’s job is to channel this effervescence into productive tasks. But sometimes they get impatient and mistake the action for the results–they’d rather do something than win. Activism beyond the workplace can be spontaneous and flashy, and can provide instant gratification. Workplace organizing is slow, often with long gaps between actions. And because they are new to the movement, this person probably doesn’t have experience in democratic decision-making and accountability.
The various personalities in every shop demonstrate why it’s important to lay out strategic goals and stick to them. Strategy takes into account long-term outcomes, possible obstacles, and a plan to win. It should change over time depending on various factors, but overall the goal of unionizing a shop is generally the same: build a significant supermajority of workers who are willing to take action to win demands. We have found, through experiences at myriad campaigns, that the only way to reach that level of support is through organic, face-to-face, time-intensive organizing to create a culture of solidarity. Strategy must reflect that and should take into account who should be recruited and when, how they should be recruited, what actions to take, and a series of ideal timelines. If we are going to defeat the big boss, we need to have a clear strategy, the will to fight, and the support to win.
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